How do you shop in virtual reality? That was the question staring down Steven Brennen at the beginning of the year. Brennen is eBay Australia’s senior director of marketing and retail innovation and his company had decided to partner with Myer, Australia’s largest department store, to create a world-first shopping experience in VR. “When we first started, we imagined a virtual world that looked a lot like a real, traditional department store, with a concierge greeting you and guiding you through a grand glass lobby and showing you through all of the different sections,” he says. “But then we thought: hang on—why? Why are we limiting ourselves to what we know? What would it be like if we didn’t need walls, floors, or escalators to move through the experience? What would happen if we stopped telling customers which products fit together and they told us instead?”
Brennen’s perplexity—and sense of adventure—matches the spirit surrounding VR today. The medium could unlock all kinds of potential—but where to start? That’s especially true for brands and stores interested in experimenting with VR, or even Augmented Reality (AR). A VR movie can immerse an audience without requiring active participation, but retail always depends on an interaction from the customer.
Still, the temptation is irresistible. E-commerce allows stores to show and sell their merchandise to anyone in the world; VR retail shimmers with the possibility of letting anyone, anywhere, experience and purchase that merchandise in 3D. Goldman Sachs analysts predict that VR will become an $80 billion industry by 2025. Retail will certainly find a niche within that massive market. The question remains, how?
A 2009 study (PDF) from professors at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the University of Wisconsin’s business school found that consumers are more likely to spend more money on an item they’ve touched, versus consumers who keep their hands to themselves. Technically, you can’t touch anything in VR. But that same study found something else: it asked one group to just imagine owning a piece of merchandise, and asked the other to simply evaluate it. The former group also assigned more value to the product.
The challenge for retailers lies in making sure consumers do more than evaluate an item. IKEA found a novel way to do that back in 2013, with its AR-powered catalog app. Customers anywhere can download the app, and use it to visualize pieces of Ikea furniture in their home. That means they can know ahead of time whether the Billy bookcase will jibe with the side tables they already own, or not. It works thanks to print-digital synchronicity. Customers flip through the print catalog. If a page sports a plus symbol, the customer holds her phone or tablet over it, and a screen will prompt her to scan the furniture on the page. That then works with the device’s camera to digitally place the furniture anywhere in the user’s immediate environment. It lets, perhaps even forces, consumers to imagine ownership.
VR takes the immersion even farther, but introduces new challenges. Namely, consumers need more hardware, like headsets and controllers. Chinese retail giant Alibaba solved this by setting up a VR shopping experience at the Taobao Maker Festival in Shanghai this July. With an Alibaba headset on, visitors could traipse through what Alibaba calls a “futuristic shopping experience,” with the retailer as their guide—like a gateway VR shopping experience. Within that, Alibaba had designed a VR robot to help customers select products, and a 360-degree panoramic view that gave shoppers a closer look at products than they would get through a desktop screen. Crucially, this came with an interactive “check for details” function that led to models wearing apparel and accessories on a catwalk. This is more than you would ever find in a typical brick-and-mortar, making it apparent that Alibaba is capitalizing on the medium. The experience is one of many that have come out of Alibaba’s Gnome Magic Lab, which launched in March and specializes in VR research.
Labs like these should help keep VR shopping experiences from becoming gimmicks. “I think that with any kind of technology, not just VR, you have to be very careful about not just using it for technology’s sake,” Brennen says. “We challenged ourselves to not just replicate the current shopping experience in VR, but instead to remove the boundaries that we are faced with today in both online and offline retail.” Perhaps that means a lack of information about a product, or a sales staff that’s too busy to help each individual customer. The eBay x Myer World’s First Virtual Reality Department Store app can bypass those problems, by showing products in 3D, surrounding by floating, interactive graphics, and on-demand, lively conversations with remote salespeople. These features seem to have worked: Brennen says 4,000 people downloaded the app on the store’s first day, and 117,777 unique users joined in the first month.
There’s still much to learn. As with e-commerce, VR and AR shopping trips will produce data about consumers. Stores can watch how people maneuver their way through a VR experience, and see what grabs their attention. Armed with that information, retailers can continue to curate increasingly thoughtful experiences. As these ideas and strategies coalesce, they will, as Brennen says, take “the world into the next phase of technology-enhanced retailing.”
This article was produced by Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.